Learning Styles – a well intentioned, misdirected effort?

Learning styles, we’ve all heard of them, we’ve all filled out a questionnaire or two. Honey & Mumford, Kolb and others are theorists we’ve all heard of. Reflector or pragmatist? Visual/Auditory/Kinaesthetic learner? What about your learners? How do you differentiate for learning styles in your classroom?

Learning styles make us feel good. Discussion opens educational dialogue between teacher/trainer/learner – a lexicon of learning, making us feel professional, as if we’re adding value, promoting the deep-rooted psychological domains of learning. The problem is however, that the learning styles field has been built on foundations of sand. The theories are unproved. Their usefulness and application don’t stand up to academic scrutiny, or peer review.

The whole field of learning styles was comprehensively and professionally scrutinised in 2005/6 by Professor Frank Coffield and his team, funded by the Learning and Skills Research Centre. Their remit was to examine learning styles theories and comment on their usefulness and application in the post-compulsory sector. They “sought to sift the wheat from the chaff among the leading models and inventories … basing conclusions on evidence, reasoned argument and healthy scepticism”

In 16 months of research the team identified 71 models of learning style and categorised 13 of them as major models for detailed examination (matching them against the minimal criteria of internal consistency, test-retest reliability, construct validity and predictive validity). Amongst critiques of 10 other models you can read a detailed review of Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ), Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI) and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). It’s difficult to believe that both Honey & Mumford and Kolb’s models (used widely in training/education) were found to meet only ONE of the four minimum criteria and neither received support or recommendation from the review team. Incredible.

Those of us with a penchant for accessible tools often use models that – on face value – appear credible and are well thought of by our peer groups. Prof Coffield’s findings give resounding cause for concern though. His team dismissed some of the most popular models completely, but also made sound recommendations for good practice in the place of learning styles theories. If you’re serious about your practice – indeed, if you’re using some of these models in person – then you really should feel duty bound to read through the work yourself and make an informed choice about whether or not to continue:

In June 2004 the Minister for School Standards, David Miliband, commissioned an independent report to consider the issue of learning. The findings, published by Demos, strongly support Coffield et al.

A bleak picture? Not quite. There’re actually some really useful things we can do to promote learning (and educational dialogue) without resorting to unproved learning styles theories. As Coffield’s team point out, Hattie (1999) detailed effect sizes for classroom interventions, concluding that reinforcement, prior cognitive ability, instructional quality, direct instruction and student disposition to learn (in that order) were by far the most important matters deserving of our attention.

Les Howles’s “Learning Styles: What the Research Says and How to Apply it to Designing E-Learning” is a detail rich summary written in 2006. He indicates a misplaced focus on learning styles and how this focus can be replaced by consideration of “learner attributes that have been tried, tested and proven true (prior knowledge, motivation, aptitudes, and learner confidence related to the content or task to be learned). Interestingly, both “Prior knowledge” and “motivation” sit well within 2 of Hattie’s previously detailed top 5 effect sizes (prior cognitive ability and disposition).

When supporting performance improvements at work I try to consider baseline questions such as:

  1. What prior knowledge does this learner have? (exams/recent training and education etc)
  2. How motivated are they? (Not just how motivated they appear, in interview etc. What is their behaviour like? Do their words match their actions? What evidence supports this?)
  3. How confident are they (going into the learning experience or exam)
  4. Do they demonstrate natural aptitude?

Responses can be matched with efforts towards interventions of best effect – high quality delivery, matched with reinforcement and individual attention.

Learning Styles – a well intentioned, misdirected effort. The research is there and it has addressed us all; we must develop our practice carefully if we are to improve the quality and experience of learning in our classrooms. If you’ve read my article 7±2 you will have noticed that I’ve highlighted two useful ‘chunks’ for your consideration – 5 interventions and 4 questions (both sitting nicely at 5 items ±2). A simple recipe, easily memorised. Simple, but proven.

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7 responses to “Learning Styles – a well intentioned, misdirected effort?

  1. Daniel Willingham’s thoughtfully produced video (Learning Styles Don’t Exist) – well worth reviewing for a summary of the key points:

  2. I have somehow been a natural learner for most of my life. During my school years and now in my University years, I have somehow been able to study my subjects at an exponential rate.

    I heard from my Mum only a few months ago that as a 2 or 3 year old kid, I was watching Game Shows involving a ton of logic and language. I was able to spell simple words such as ‘house’ at the time most else were still learning to write. It is quite a seductive idea that learning is somehow fixed to a constant of motivation, confidence and one of the five senses.

    This is wrong. The answer is we all learn at the same levels. Here is why:

    If you believe a subject is boring and a waste of time, what are you likely to do? Are you likely to be caught up in the wonders of trigonometric equations if you are finding the whole idea of triangles a trip to an early grave? Of course not.

    But let’s say I believed a subject like Computing would allow me to make my own video games, surf the internet and share my views, and make my own multimedia. Am I likely to ‘not know a thing’ about computers? No.

    The real driving force behind learning of any kind is the state the person is in. The well-rested body and the correctly structured mind of correct beliefs and imagination can get any human to learn anything of their own free will. There is a fundamental difference between the desire of the voices ‘I seriously cannot be bothered with this’ and ‘Damn I haven’t a bloody clue what this means – I’m going to find out!’ Because after you do find out, you aren’t likely to forget.

    And another factor to consider – we always change from state to state throughout the day. From happy to curious to sad to overjoyed to depressed to angry to scared to sleepy to relaxed – these states as a consequence generate DIFFERENT TRAINS OF THOUGHT. So maybe the idea of forgetting information is not as serious as it seems – maybe we just have to remember how we were feeling at the time of learning the information.

    Therefore, I sum up learning like this: it is down to FEELINGS. Depending on what your beliefs about the world are, they will suggest different states to you in certain situations which will in turn produce the state, varying your rates of learning.

    The idea of visual/audio/kinetic suggests one idea to me: IMAGINATION. Those are three of the five senses. So maybe our feelings light up different images (so we don’t think we are crazy) which loop back to the feelings, and that loop helps us look for more of the same from the outside world.

    These are in my opinion much better arguments for studying and learning. I find it hard to believe some brains are born better learners than others – if you eat a poisonous food, why would your brain NOT learn to never eat it again? Emotional impact in learning is an area too overlooked from my viewpoint.

  3. Pingback: Learning styles – the key points « Edge of Stretch

  4. Hi

    Just Tweeted a link to the report because the link above doesn’t work.

    Here’s a good one direct to the PDF here.

    • Thanks for the spot. It’s a shame (and a little short-sighted) when websites obscure direct links to their published work; in this day and age we should be able to tweet straight to the product, not the salesroom. I’ve fixed the links for now (having to link to two different sources! Humph!

  5. Pingback: Learning Styles: fable-ous and tragic | We Are Simon Bostock

  6. Pingback: The Learning Styles Debate - Online College.org

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